As a young girl at Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, Bina (not her real name) received extra instruction and care to address her learning differences. That help would ultimately change her life.
Shemesh, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, was a key part of her transformation.
“I have dyslexia, a learning disability and needed help with reading and writing English,” the now-24-year-old said via email during a recent trip to Israel. “I needed help with spelling and specifically proofreading papers. I also need help with translations of Hebrew tests into English. I honestly can say without the support I received from Shemesh, as well as other programs and tutoring I received, I would not be where I am today.”
After high school, Bina went on to college to study special education, elementary education and Judaic studies and then got a master’s in education in curriculum development and instruction.
In day schools across Jewish Baltimore, Shemesh, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, helps students like Bina with learning differences better succeed in life.
“People ask me, ‘What does Shemesh do?’” said Shemesh Executive Director Dr. Aviva Weisbord. “We work with differences and disabilities. But what we really do — we give kids a future.”
To commemorate Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and to celebrate 10 years of working with students with a variety of challenges — from reading and comprehension difficulties to dyslexia, behavioral problems and executive function disorder — Weisbord and Shemesh Program Director Faye Friedman sat down to talk with the JT about how the organization has grown.
Shemesh evolved out of the former Weinberg Academy, which had learning centers for Jewish kids with learning differences. The academy approached The Associated for help sustaining the learning services they had been providing to students for decades.
“If you remember, 2008 was the beginning of the ‘big bust,’” Weisbord said. “And there were a lot of federations that shut down, most nonprofits were pulling back. And The Associated said, ‘This is important, let’s take a look,’ which is mind-boggling if you think about it.”
Weisbord, former executive director of Jewish Big Brother Big Sister, joined an Associated task force, evaluating the best ways to help children with learning differences. Friedman was educational director of Weinberg Academy.
“We wanted what we were already doing,” Friedman said. “But also, the more we knew about learning differences the more we were compelled to do.”
Meanwhile, the numbers of children identified with learning challenges was growing in all of the day schools.
“How would we take care of them when we couldn’t manage what was happening before 2008?” Weisbord asked.
Looking back, Friedman and Weisbord remember the stigma surrounding children with learning differences and how even language was intimidating and off-putting to parents seeking help for their children.
“Asking parents to [take children] for psychoeducational testing was a very big deal,” Friedman recalled. “But it is now so commonplace today to talk about getting testing. We’ve evolved in many ways, but that’s really one of the big ways.”
In fact, parents now call Shemesh to ask if they should have their child tested, Weisbord said. “Often parents are putting it out there and we don’t have to present it.”
Over the years, with improved professional development and education as well as laws mandating schools identify students with disabilities, administrators, teachers and parents got better at recognizing students with learning differences. As a result, teaching students with those differences became more mainstream.
“As teaching catches up with theoretical knowledge, and the classroom teachers start doing that, behavior improves, learning improves and everybody’s happier,” Weisbord said. “They’re learning more. I think Shemesh has helped create a more holistic approach to each student.”
Students with learning differences are no longer sequestered in back rooms of schools, but are mainstreamed in classrooms, while accessible “learning centers” in schools put learning differences front and center.
“We now know that children learn differently for a whole variety of reasons,” Friedman said. “It’s so much more prevalent now. Some kids are coming out for speech, some kids are coming out for OT (occupational therapy) and some kids are coming out for the academic supports.”
Weisbord said the stigma is much less severe than it was decades ago, when students in one school used a back elevator so they wouldn’t be singled out for getting help.
“We’ve come a long way. Nobody’s hidden,” Weisbord said. “We do often say to parents, ‘If your child is struggling with these things, she was born at the right time. Because there are things we can do to help.’”
The Shemesh program began offering services in 2009 in three schools, Bais Yaakov, Talmudical Academy and the former Yeshivat Rambam. Now, they’re in a dozen Jewish day schools and congregational schools with staff ranging from as-needed to full-time. Instruction can be given one-on-one or to a full classroom. Its staff includes early childhood consultants, reading specialists, speech pathologists and an executive function coach. Students in Shemesh programs are in preschool through high school.
“We really have to find the thing that works with our students. It’s not one thing for every child,” Friedman said. “It’s individualized.”
Wendy Gelber, Head of Lower School at Krieger Schechter Day School, is in her eighth year as an administrator in the lower school. She said she sees a marked difference in students who work with Shemesh instructors on speech and language support and reading instruction.
“The early assessment, intervention and support that Shemesh provides allows our students to access and benefit from KSDS’s rigorous and engaging curriculum and allows the students to continue to learn in a dual-language program infused with Jewish values,” Gelber said. “By the end of grade 2, many of the students who worked with Shemesh in their early elementary years no longer need the support that Shemesh provides.”
Of course, Shemesh is not alone in providing services to people with disabilities. The Baltimore area has a number of organizations that do this work, many of which will mark Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month with special events.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of RespectAbility, a Rockville nonprofit that recruits, trains and places Jews with disabilities in leadership positions. She said there has been “tremendous progress in recent years” regarding access and inclusion.
“More Jews with disabilities are being accepted and included at Jewish schools, camps, Hillels and Birthright Israel trips than ever before,” she said. “This is fantastic for the entire Jewish community, as we all want to be welcoming, respectful and inclusive of Jews of all abilities.”
The next stage, she said, is for more Jews with disabilities to serve in leadership positions.
“Talented and committed Jews want to serve as teachers in Jewish day schools, as rabbis, camp counselors and lay leaders,” she said. “It is starting to happen already with rabbis who are blind, deaf, have autism and other disabilities. They are breaking glass ceilings and are doing a fantastic job serving the disability and broader Jewish community overall.”
Locally, the Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated, and its JADE program (Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education) offer ongoing inclusive programming such as captioning videos, but are highlighting JDAIM programs in February, including “B’More Inclusive” events such as a Tot Shabbat, sign language classes, sensitivity workshops and a movie night.
“We are also running a B’More Inclusive orientation for the youth directors of the Suburban Orthodox youth minyan as well as for the CJE staff,” said Yael Zelinger, disability and inclusion associate and JADE coordinator. Zelinger said she is working with Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home on a workshop for its staff about how to communicate with deaf or hard of hearing people.
For Bina, receiving help with her learning differences from Shemesh, Bais Yaakov and other tutors and programs inspired her to work with students with autism and other disabilities.
“That made me want to give back to other students who struggle in school. One thing I would tell students is don’t give up on your dreams and don’t let your learning disability define you,” she said. “Do not view yourself as someone with a disability. Rather, view yourself as someone with an ability! These challenges will help shape you for a better person.”
She advises parents of children with learning disabilities, as well as teachers and administrators, to advocate for children and to teach them to advocate for themselves.
“Believe in your children and fake it if you don’t,” she said. “Your child’s self-esteem and self-image depend on it. If you feel ashamed, they will feel ashamed. Just know that not getting your child the necessary help now may be less embarrassing, but it will negatively impact your child in the future. The earlier you can help them, the better.”
“Our first early-childhood educator went into one preschool and said, ‘I’m here to help you,’ and the preschool director said, ‘I don’t even know where to put you,’” Weisbord recalled. “And she said, ‘I don’t need an office, I’ll be in the classroom.’ Within a few weeks we got a call asking if they could have her full-time.”
Looking back to when the new organization was choosing its name, Weisbord and Friedman said a number of possibilities were bandied about, but Shemesh was the ultimate choice — and for good reason.
“Shemesh means sun. The sun is powerful and what we do every day is powerful,” Weisbord said. “We shine a light on Jewish education.”
Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month
B’More Inclusive Tot Shabbat
Fridays, Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22 at 11 a.m. JTown at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, 5700 Park Heights Ave. Free. Visit cjebaltimore.org.
Intro to American Sign Language
Mondays, Feb. 4, 11, 18, 25 at 7:30 – 9 p.m. Macks Center for Jewish Education Conference Room, 5708 Park Heights Ave. Learn basic American Sign Language vocabulary and grammar, beginning conversational skills and get an introduction to deaf culture and community. For ages 14 and up. $40. Visit cjebaltimore.org/ASLclass2019.
Read with Karma Dogs
Feb. 5, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Macks Center for Jewish Education Library, 5708 Park Heights Ave. Shy or reluctant readers can read to Karma Dogs from H.E.A.R.T.S. (Help Encourage All Readers to Success). Karma dogs are friendly, nonjudgmental and good listeners. Contact Rachel Turniansky firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harmony at Home: Promoting Better Behavior and Self Control
Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m. Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School Rosen Arts Center, 3300 Old Court Road. SHEMESH presents this parent lecture featuring Russell Barkley, Ph.D., a world-renowned expert on ADHD. Visit shemeshparentlecture.eventbrite.com.
Special Education Conference for Teachers
Feb. 6, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Russel Barkley, Ph.D., speaks at Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore, 6300 Park Heights Ave. $150 per educator (discounts for groups; partial day options available). Contact Batya Jacobs at email@example.com. yachad.org/events/10252/strategies-for-success.
Feb. 6, 8 p.m., Weinberg Park Heights JCC. For parents of children with attention issues and poor executive functioning. Free. Confidentiality assured. Visit shemeshbaltimore.org.
Shifting from School to Adulthood
Feb. 7, 14, 21, 28, 1 p.m. Weinberg Park Heights JCC. Jewish Community Services (JCS) Employment Support Services is offering a free four-part workshop to help parents and caregivers of children with varying abilities navigate what can often be a confusing path. Contact 410-843-7353 or visit jcsbaltimore.org.
Kol Echad Inclusive Shabbat
Feb. 9, 11-11:45 a.m. Interactive, sensory-friendly Shabbat featuring music and movement. All abilities welcome. Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road. Registration preferred. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
JDAIM Movie Night
Feb. 12, 7:30–9 p.m. Park Heights JCC, Community Room, 5700 Park Heights Ave. Screening of “Anita,” the story of a young woman with Down syndrome who lives a happy life in Buenos Aires with her mother. Everything changes when Anita is left alone, confused and helpless after the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association is bombed (the deadliest bombing in Argentina’s history). Film is in Spanish with English subtitles. This film is unrated, but contains strong language. Free, registration required. Visit cjebaltimore.org/jdaim2019.
Panel Discussion and Resource Expo
Feb. 19, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Weinberg Park Heights JCC. Join The Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance for a panel discussion about resources available to community members with disabilities in the areas of social, educational, recreational and housing services and workforce development through CHAI, CJE, CHAI, JCS, JCC of Greater Baltimore and SHEMESH. Free. Contact Mary Haar at email@example.com or 410-369-9311.
How to Communicate with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Workshops available on-site for any Jewish agency, school or synagogue. Learn how to include people who communicate differently and much more. Contact Yael Zelinger at 410-735-5023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
B’More Inclusive Awareness and Sensitivity Workshops
Educational activities available for small or large groups to learn to foster inclusion and acceptance of individuals with disabilities. Training for teachers on how to weave inclusion and awareness concepts throughout the school year is also available. Contact Yael Zelinger at 410-735-5023 or yzelinger @cjebaltimore.org.